Goldilocks and the Three Prayers

I’ve been a fan of Doctor Who for as long as I can remember. I started watching regularly towards the end of the Tom Baker era, and Peter Davison was the first Doctor I saw from beginning to end, so I guess those two are my ‘favourites’ though I can see merits in all of them (yes all of them!)

I’ve enjoyed the 21st Century reboot as well, but there was one particular change that bothered me. I think it bothered me so much that I even complained about it on internet message boards! It was the change in episode format and story length.

In the good old days the episode was generally around 25 minutes long, and a story typically ran over 4 episodes. That gave opportunities for classic (or not-so-classic) cliffhangers, but more importantly it gave a degree of flexibility to the story length. If necessary the story could be spread over a shorter or longer number of episodes – I remember the all time great Genesis of the Daleks was a 6-parter. In theory you could also have a one-off 25 minute story if you wanted to. Somewhere in my archives I probably have a list of all the stories that I could check to see if they ever did that – but I won’t!

The reboot changed the format more in line with the current US TV vogue. There was a 13 episode ‘season’ which had on underlying/overarching storyline ‘arc’, but within that were 45 minute episodes that were usually self-contained stories. Yes there was the occasional 2-parter but they were the exception, and in any case putting together 45 minute episodes naturally gives less flexibility than 25 minute ones.

Many stories work brilliantly within that format, but more often than I’d like, I’d see stories that seemed either padded out or squeezed to fit them into the required number of minutes. In my perfect world I would let the writers write a story that worked, of whatever length was necessary, and I’d let the director film it in as many parts, of whatever length, so that they would work on screen for maximum audience satisfaction. So a 30 minute story one week could be followed by a 2 hour TV movie the next, followed by a 90 minute story spread over two weeks with a terrific cliffhanger in the middle.

Of course that’s not how TV schedules work these days – I don’t know if they ever did. If you want the flexibility to produce a moving picture that is the perfect length for the story you want to tell, cinema is your best hope.

Other art forms aren’t as restricted by schedules – although some might be moving that way, as Billy Joel noted in his 1974 song The Entertainer:

I am the entertainer,
I come to do my show.
You’ve heard my latest record,
It’s been on the radio.
Ah, it took me years to write it,
They were the best years of my life.
It was a beautiful song.
But it ran too long.
If you’re gonna have a hit,
You gotta make it fit –
So they cut it down to 3:05.

I recall a magazine interview Mark Knopfler gave, back in the late 1980s I think, although he’s told the story on other occasions. He spoke about being in a bar, listening to “Telegraph Road” which was on the jukebox, and he found it overlong, overblown and lifeless. Straight afterwards, he heard Buddy Holly’s “Rave On!”, about 13 minutes shorter, which was the complete opposite, and to Knopfler’s ears sounded so much better for it.

Of course he wasn’t comparing apples even with oranges, but rather with roast beef and Yorkshire pudding! Completely different songs, trying to achieve entirely different results, with entirely different things to say. Each one works perfectly well in its own terms.

You might be wondering by now, just what all this has to do with my Christian journey? Well these examples were brought to mind when I was reflecting on this blog. What I like about the blog format is that I can write as much or as little as I want on a particular subject. I can even produce a series of posts on a theme (as I intend to shortly) to extend the scope wider if I feel it’s necessary.

But I’m still not convinced that I’m getting it right. There’s a danger of me writing too much, and just getting boring, or overly-analytical. I feel there’s even more danger of me not writing enough. I usually think about my posts for a few days before I write, though some are more spontaneous. I’ll tend to write them out in draft form, then read over them again a short time later to correct obvious grammar problems and generally tidy them up. But still I often look back on a post and realise that there was so much more I could have added to explain my thoughts, and my faith, more clearly.

Hopefully I will improve as a writer over the next weeks, months and years. And one of the advantages of a blog is that I can go back later to revise them if I really need to, although I’ll try to avoid that if possible, and maybe add links to better articles, or footnotes, instead. I’m not George Lucas and this blog isn’t Star Wars. I’ll try to avoid tinkering. If Greedo should have shot first, then I can only apologise.

Thinking about this also reminded me of other places where I’ve noticed the problem in Christian life. And the first of these is in sermons.

I haven’t been a Christian for that long – less than four years at the time of writing. I don’t have a vast personal experience of the variety of preaching styles that are available, but I’ve heard a few, and I’ve also heard that one of the hallmarks of some denominations can be the length of sermons. I hope I’m not stating the obvious when I say that I don’t mind how long the sermon is, as long as it’s appropriate for the message being delivered. Actually I hope I am stating the obvious there!

I was troubled to read this statement by James MacDonald in an article titled 5 Things We Do Today Instead of Preach the Word (on page 3):

“Twenty minute sermons”

I don’t know how it works at your church, but for us it takes 5 minutes to set the rig up and another 5 or 10 minutes to take it down. If you’re only preaching for 20 minutes, that gives you 5 minutes to drill. You’re not going very deep, are you? It takes some time.

Judging by the comments on the article there were several others who shared my concern. Of course, I’m not arguing in any way that 20 minutes is always long enough to explain even a single verse, but 45 minutes? An hour? 2 hours? How much is enough? How much can the congregation take? How much will sink in? If you preach the most devastatingly insightful and life changing message of the last 2000 years, but you’ve lost your audience, then what glory will God get from it?

Some services are unrestricted, while others are strictly scheduled, especially when multiple services are running through the day, so the preacher’s hands may be tied in some respects. But I would like to think that room can be found for flexibility in most cases.

I’m not going to make arguments comparing Jesus’ sermons and teaching, because what is written doesn’t necessarily reflect everything He said, and there are often layers of meaning to read into His words. But at other times He was able to encapsulate a major message in the simplest of ways, and that simplicity is something I cherish and want more of from my spiritual leaders.

There is a time for every sermon under the sun. Sometimes that time will be 20 minutes or less. Sometimes it will be 2 hours or more. Let wisdom decide.

And finally to something I’ve struggled with many times – prayer.

I’ve thought about prayer a lot over the years. Talked about it. Prayed about it! No doubt I’ll blog about it plenty in the future. I don’t understand how it can be so easy and yet so difficult at the same time – particularly public prayer.

More than once I’ve been asked to pray at the start or end of an occasion, and the person before me has reeled off what seems an unfeasibly long prayer, full of the right turns of phrase, and making my own words that follow feel pitifully inadequate. In some circles there’s almost a cachet surrounding lengthy prayer.

But again, does the content justify the length? I don’t believe any of the people listening to the prayer need to be told the same thing in half a dozen ways. And I’m absolutely sure that God doesn’t. It saddens me that I’ve found myself not sharing a sense of God’s presence on occasions but instead thinking of Jesus’ words:

And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words.

Therefore do not be like them. For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him. In this manner, therefore, pray:

Our Father in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
As we forgive our debtors.
And do not lead us into temptation,
But deliver us from the evil one.
For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen

(Matthew 6:5-13)

The Lord’s Prayer is 66 words in the New King James Version. Of course that’s not enough to cover everything that you may wish to pray about on every occasion, but as a model it comprehensively refutes the idea that a lengthy prayer has more innate worth than a short one. And in case you want another example, turn to Luke 18, and say together with me:

God, be merciful to me a sinner!

But I say yet again that a short prayer isn’t always appropriate either. It’s all about proportion and balance. I’ve had quiet times alone with God when my prayers have gone on for twenty minutes, half an hour, or more. God knows it all already, so it’s really for my benefit as my conversation with Him helps me understand more clearly the situation and what He wants me to do in it.

And there will be times of corporate prayer where much does need to be said, and something serious will be lost if we short-change ourselves.

So let’s use the right prayer for the right occasion, be it 7 words, or 66, or 1000. And let’s give God thanks for the amazing privilege of speaking to Him directly about whatever concerns us.

(1894 words, excluding this line!)

Update 8 November 2012 – This article describes a different perspective on the length of church services, and sermons. I don’t agree with the rigid structure it suggests, but I can see its merits, unlike most of the commentators!

Imagining John Lennon as a Christian

I don’t know everything he said, and of course even less so everything he thought, or how his views and beliefs changed throughout his life, but I think it’s reasonable to say, from my limited knowledge, that John Lennon didn’t consider himself a Christian. he gave quite a strong hint in 1966 when he said:

Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that. I’m right and i will be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first, rock ’n’ roll or Christianity.

But I was thinking about “Imagine” yesterday, and the idea came to me… I wonder whether there would be much negative reaction if one of today’s popular Christian songwriters were to pen these words:

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope some day you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people sharing all the world

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope some day you’ll join us
And the world will live as one

I’ll grant you that there probably isn’t enough direct reference to God, Jesus or the Holy Spirit in there, but look at the words. I’ve omitted the first verse for obvious reasons, but we’ll return to that later. In the lyric above I can see echoes of so much of what Jesus said during his earthly ministry.

Imagine there’s no countries… I think of Luke 10:25-37, the parable of the good Samaritan, which Jesus tells in answer to the question “Who is my neighbour?”

Nothing to kill or die for… in the sermon on the mount, Matthew 5:43-44, Jesus says

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.

Also consider the description of the new heaven and new earth in Revelation 21:4

He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.

And no religion too… no religion! Yes, read what Jesus had to say about religion, the soulless hypocritical show of tradition and law; the total opposite of the relationship with God, our Father, that Christ exemplifies. You can find his statement on the subject in Matthew 23:1-36. He doesn’t sit on the fence.

Imagine all the people living life in peace…

“Blessed are the peacemakers, For they shall be called sons of God.” (Matthew 5:9)

Imagine no possessions… no need for greed or hunger… in Matthew 6:25-34, Jesus exhorts us not to worry about such things as clothes and food, which we will be provided with if we first seek God. This is straight after He warns us not to serve mammon – money. Also look at His instructions when sending out the apostles to preach the gospel and heal the sick, the simple lifestyle described through Matthew 10:9-10.

I hope some day you’ll join us, And the world will be as one… A brotherhood of man, Imagine all the people sharing all the world… it reminds me of Jesus’ prayer for unity in John 17:20-23:

I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.

I also think of Paul’s description of the church in 1 Corinthians 12:12-26, which starts:

For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and have all been made to drink into one Spirit.

It seems that the kind of world John Lennon is imagining looks very similar to the one that Jesus pointed to, and that Christians are praying for and working towards.

So what does he have against Christianity? Why is he so convinced that it will go? Maybe the answer is in that first verse, the one I can’t imagine Matt Redman writing…

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today

Lennon is looking for a world where everyone lives for today. In itself I don’t see that as an un-Christian way of living. Jesus taught us not to worry about tomorrow, not to store up treasures on earth. The difference is that Christ tells us to store up treasures in heaven. But Lennon doesn’t want heaven or hell, because (in my opinion) he doesn’t want to face the consequences of those places being real. It’s too difficult to live by the all the rules that have been written down in scripture, and if the consequence of breaking those laws is eternal damnation, well I can understand why that would worry him.

This world view seems to be laid bare in his song “God” in which he finally claims “I just believe in me.” Self-reliance and self-determination are sweet incentives to draw you into atheism, but they are delusions, and truth is rather that “No man is an island entire of itself.”

The fact is that it is too difficult to live by God’s laws, and be “righteous” by ourselves. We can all look at our lives and see so many reasons why we don’t deserve to go to heaven. And that’s because we simply don’t. We’ve disobeyed the eternal, omnipotent ruler of the universe so many times and that makes us deserving of eternal punishment.

But God loves us and understands our weakness, our imperfection, our inability to live up to His standard. So He’s given us an escape route, another chance, he offers us salvation in the form of Jesus Christ, sent not only to show us the perfect example of how to live, but in His death to take the punishment that would otherwise be ours. Accept Jesus as your Lord, and your Saviour, and you are clothed in His righteousness, accepted by God.

You don’t have to imagine no heaven and no hell. You can live for today without fear of tomorrow. You can live in peace, in a brotherhood of man, eliminating greed and hunger. You can do it without nationalism or xenophobia, and without religion. All you need is love – God is love. (1 John 4:16)

A Final Word…

While I was researching the notion that “Imagine” is an atheist anthem for the purpose of this blog post, I came across the following article which runs along very similar lines to my own, but with (mostly) different scriptural references. You might be interested to read the opinion of a Professor of Theology and Public Issues and compare it to mine – I’m never likely to be a professor of anything!

http://www.odt.co.nz/opinion/opinion/141124/faith-and-reason-imagine-really-atheist

Here I Am Again, Lord

I wrote this in the Summer of 2010. It was originally intended to be a song, but I couldn’t work out a tune that would fit. Eventually I sat down with a friend to see if we could ‘fix’ it together and make it work with music, but I then realised that I was going in the wrong direction, and instead I needed to let it breathe as poetry. So here it is, and I hope it blesses you. It takes you through a journey that I think will be recognised by many Christians…

Long time ago
When I first heard You call me
I could feel Your joy fill my heart
And I knew You would never forsake me
Every hour of every day
I would bow before You and say
Here I am again, Lord
Here I am.

Then my faith was tested
When I lost some battles
And I lost some friends
And the enemy would scorn me
Without You I might have given in
But I loved You and I called on You
Here I am again, Lord
Here I am.

But Jesus, I let You down
Somehow I messed up
Moved my heart away from You
Followed my will, not Yours
I could have died – I deserved to
But You kept calling me
And thank you Jesus – I heard You
And on my knees I wept
Here I am again, Lord
Here I am.

Now I’m calling to You Jesus
I’ve been praying long and hard
You know my situation
It’s been going on so long
I know You hear me
I know You love me
I don’t know why You don’t answer me
When I cry from my soul
Here I am again, Lord
Here I am.

But how can I doubt when You’re faithful
And why can’t I trust when You’re truthful

I remember the days when I thought I was alone
And then I felt You here at my side
I remember the nights when my breaking heart would moan
But You wiped away the tears I cried

You never left me
Though I left You
You’re my rock
And You’re my rescue
You’re my beginning and my end
You’re my true and faithful friend
I believe You have a plan
For You are God – I’m just a man
I surrender all to You
You’re the One who makes things new
And every hour of every day
I will bless Your holy name and say
Here I am again, Lord
Here I am.
Here I am.
Here I am.

Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer;
      You shall cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’ – Isaiah 58:9